You cannot reason with an abuserNov 26, 2023
You must take away their power, and protect their victims.
Gaza, October 2000. Jamal al-Durrah, tried to protect his 12 year-old son from Israeli troops, waving desperately, shouting: “Don’t shoot”. But the terrified boy was hit by four bullets, and collapsed in his father’s arms. The father was also shot and wounded. To Israel the father and son were not human. The whole scene was caught on camera by a France 2 cameraman. (Israel blamed the Palestinian forces for not saving the child and his father…)
Last night I dreamt I was a young woman wearing olive green Israeli army field uniform with my Staff Sergeant rank on the sleeves. I was not aware I was wearing the uniform until I started to talk a man who stood nearby. It was when he saw me in the uniform, that I saw myself. I then rushed to justify myself to him, and explained that although I was wearing the uniform, I completely disagreed with Israel and what the Israeli military is doing. He looked at me sceptically, and I knew that it would take a lot of effort to convince him that I was not a bad person. It felt powerless and hopeless, because I knew that even if I convinced him, I would have to explain myself over and over again to every person I met. It felt like the uniform was glued to my skin, and I did not have a choice about wearing it.
I have a clear memory from the time I served in the Israeli military in the early 1980s. I was about nineteen and was catching a bus to Haifa near the Army’s HQ in the centre of Tel Aviv where I served. My boyfriend at the time, an officer in the armoured corps, happened to be in Haifa that day, and I planned to meet up with him for a couple of hours at the end of my shift.
I sat at a window seat just three rows from the back of the bus. At the centre of the back row sat an old Palestinian man clutching a shopping bag, and minding his own business. He was very likely a citizen of Israel who must have been travelling back home to Haifa, after visiting Tel Aviv or Yaffa for the day. A few minutes before the bus left, three fully armed, aggressive Border Patrol (MAGAV) soldiers got on the bus and went straight to the back to harass the old man. They demanded his ID, and hovered over him in a menacing way. I do not remember what they barked at him, but I remember their bark.
This was a routine ‘security inspection’, which singled out Palestinians. There could have been a robber, rapist, domestic abuser, or a pedophile on that bus, but the soldiers were only after Palestinians. How did I, or they know he was a Palestinian? Good question. It was because he ‘looked’ like a Palestinian. In Israel how you look can easily get you arrested without charge, beaten up, tortured, or killed. Many Israeli Jews, including myself, look exactly like Palestinians, but somehow we could always tell Palestinians apart. It is disturbing how ingrained and instinctive racial profiling can become when you are indoctrinate people from a young age.
As the soldiers moved away and started to get off the bus, I quickly turned to look at the man. He could have easily been my grandfather. Our eyes met briefly. The humiliation and hurt I saw in them never left me. I felt pain and empathy for him. I wanted to tell him that I did not like how these soldiers treated him, that I did not agree with it, and that he did not deserve it. A moment later as I gazed down I realised that I was in uniform. I knew that when the old man looked at me, what he saw was soldier. It did not matter what I felt, or what I tried to communicate with my eyes. When this man looked at me, he saw a member of the same brutal military that enforced settler-colonialism in his country, on his land, and that was determined to get rid of all of his people by any means possible. I could have move and sat next to him. I could have spoken to him. But I did not. I felt paralysed. Whatever I felt, my indoctrination kept me in my place.
‘Security inspections’ have always been a standard part of Israel’s psychological warfare against the Palestinian people. All colonialists have used psychological warfare to break, subdue and control the colonised. The world has largely been oblivious to the fact that Palestinians have had to live with this for seventy-five long years. Harassment, making people feel like they are bad, or guilty of something, making people feel insecure wherever they are, beatings, arrests and incarceration without charge, house demolitions, house invasions, breaking doors in the middle of the night, incarceration of children, torture, and cold-blooded murder are all intended to break a people’s spirit. They flaunt obscene power, showing the victims of colonialism that the coloniser can do whatever it wants o them, everywhere, at any time. Nowhere is safe from colonialist power. Colonialists do everything to enforce the idea that resistance is futile. But resistance does not come out of nowhere. If there is resistance, it means there is oppression.
Three tall, fully armed soldiers harassing one unarmed, innocent elderly man on the back seat of a bus, do not demonstrate power or strength. Tens of thousands of bombs unleashed on urban populations indiscriminately do not communicate power. They demonstrate the cowardice and weakness of bullies.
Israeli Jews do not see the devastation of Gaza on their TV screens. They are fed a watertight, sanitised version that repeatedly portrays Israel as a noble and innocent victim, and the Palestinians as non-human monsters. It would take considerable effort for Israeli Jews to find alternative sources of information that show the wholesale butchery and carnage their ‘saintly’ soldiers and pilots are inflicting on millions of people.
I know that a four-day ceasefire and some exchange of hostages has been agreed upon today. But Israel is notorious for not abiding by agreements, especially with the Palestinians. As Gideon Levy said this morning on Al Jazeera, yes, there may be a temporary deal now, but what happens when the four days are over? People’s entire existence has already been annihilated. So many are dead, wounded and traumatised and their suffering is far from over. Israel wants every last Palestinian gone by any means possible.
There was no physical violence against the old man on that bus to Haifa, and the whole incident was brief. But the psychological and spiritual violence, and my role in it never left me. This was one of the many incidents and moments of awareness that years later led me to question everything that I was brought up to believe. It made me realise that Israel was not the ‘good guy’. We were as bad as they come. Last night’s dream was a memory of what it felt like when I served in that army. In my entire twenty-seven years in Israel, I never felt more accepted than when I was a soldier. Israeli society revolves around its military and worships its soldiers. But during those two years of service, when I was young and ignorant, my capacity for empathy began to push against my indoctrination.
I did leave Israel permanently and renounced my Israeli citizenship twenty-two years ago. But my dream was a reminder that I still feel guilty for my collusion with the settler-colonial country in which I was born. I do not need sympathy or protection from my guilt. It is the right thing to feel. Healthy human beings feel guilt when they do something wrong, or when they collude. The Israeli soldiers, pilots, officers, who know precisely what they are doing, and continue to do it without guilt, are not well people. My guilt is a relief. I am not one of them anymore.
I am not the victim in this terrible story. The Palestinian people are. They have always faced the threat of extermination by the Zionist settler-colonial regime. Israel is like a domestic abuser. You cannot plead with a domestic abuser to stop what they are doing. We must take away their power and protect their victims.
First published by Avigail Abarbanel from Fully Human Essays November 23, 2023